Zebras vs Unicorns: Aniyia Williams Built Black And Brown Founders Out Of Lessons Learned From A Failed Startup

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Black And Brown Founders
Aniyia Williams, founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite. Photo provided/Taylor Farnsworth

Creator. Inventor. Musician. Hair magician. Techie. Foodie. Mommy.

These are the words used to describe Aniyia Williams on her website and in her professional and personal journey.

Williams uses her talents to change lives. A graduate of Penn State University with a degree in music, she’s a former fundraiser for a music program, former CEO of a jewelry tech company and now she helps other founders understand funding while juggling the work of wife and mother.

Williams founded Tinsel, a company that produced tech jewelry for women for five years until March 2019. The company made and sold designer earbud necklaces in gold and gunmetal for $199 a pair.

Headphones as jewelry: dipper angled right earbud. Photo provided/Jason Lorne Giles

However, the close-to-half-a-million dollars raised over the lifetime of Tinsel, including $55,000 in crowdfunding, could not overcome challenges of manufacturing, changes in cell phone hardware and bad advice. It was a death by “a thousand cuts,” Williams wrote in a blog about lessons learned running Tinsel.  

Now, Williams stands tall among tech industry movers and shakers as the founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite.

If we can change the incentive structure, we can make a difference. Or you end up with people like Jeff Bezos, who have more money than they can ever spend in a lifetime, trying to colonize Mars when our own planet is dying.

Aniyia Williams, founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite.

Black and Brown Founders holds events including an upcoming boot camp that give entrepreneurs knowledge and tools to launch startups without relying on venture capital. Zebras Unite — a 1,500-member global community of startup founders, investors and foundations — calls for a more inclusive movement to counter existing venture capital culture with greater gender and racial diversity.

Black And Brown Founders
Aniyia Williams, founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite, works with co-founders Jennifer Brandel of Hearken, Mara Zepeda of Switchboard, and Astrid Scholze of Sphaera to create an inclusive community. Photo provided

Williams shares her wisdom and connections to help others learn from her missteps while paving the way for new founders and calling for equality in the industry.

The second cohort of Bootstrapping Bootcamp by Black and Brown Founders launches Sept. 17. Deadline for applications is Sept. 10. Apply here.

Williams shared with Moguldom her thoughts on equality in funding — will it ever happen? — why work-life balance is a myth and finding her purpose while starting up.

I want to see more investing instruments and experiments with revenue-based investments. I want to see us get money into the businesses that aren’t going to be billion-dollar businesses (unicorns), which is most businesses.

Aniyia Williams, founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite.

Moguldom: Why did you start Tinsel?

Aniyia Williams: I was really frustrated with the experience of digging headphones out of my bag all the time. At the time, the fall of 2014, I was tired of having to untangle my earbuds, tired of losing them, and I felt like they got broken all the time. In my mind, I figured out a solution. If I could wear them on my body, I wouldn’t have these issues. I didn’t want to have headphones around my neck like a DJ and I didn’t want wires everywhere. I thought, what if my headphones could look like a piece of jewelry, a necklace. I searched but couldn’t find it. It didn’t exist. And I think because of where I was at that moment in my life, I just got this crazy notion that maybe I can be the person to make this “thing.” I started the company, Tinsel, in the spring of 2015. And that was the beginning of the end. I sunset the company earlier this year. It was an entire journey, which I’m happy to talk about because I learned a lot from the experience. It was really heartbreaking and sad to have to shut it down, but I think it also made way for many of the things I do today that I don’t think would be possible if I hadn’t founded Tinsel.

The brand around “venture capital” is so strong. Everyone — whether you’re Black, brown, pink, or orange in the tech industry — feels like that’s the first step, right? Like do not pass go until you’ve gotten an investor to give you money.

Aniyia Williams, founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite.

Moguldom: You help founders to navigate from pitfalls towards success. Why and how did you start Black and Brown Founders?

Aniyia Williams: Black and Brown Founders wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for Tinsel. I was doing an entrepreneurship residency with Code2040 from 2016 to 2017 and I was trying to fundraise for Tinsel. Although I had been fundraising before then and had raised some money, I was still trying to raise at least another million dollars, but I kept coming up short. All in all, with Tinsel, I ended up raising just under half-a-million dollars. I know at the time, for Black women, it was a big deal. Not many of us even get that far. But if you’re building hardware, it is not sufficient, which is part of why we had to sunset it. We weren’t really even able to get enough out of production with what we had in our budget to really try to even make it sustainable just off of sales. I realized from that experience I was not as unique as I thought. Many people of color were just like me, not getting money. As I dug deeper, I realized the general model of venture capital and how it works, the way in which investors make their decisions, it’s not really meant for most American businesses. Maybe 1-to-5 percent at the most get any venture capital funding at all. It’s a really specific type of way of financing your business. I think the brand around “venture capital” is so strong. Everyone — whether you’re Black, brown, pink, or orange in the tech industry — feels like that’s the first step, right? Like do not pass go until you’ve gotten an investor to give you money, especially because most people don’t have the means to build something big on their own.

The other thing I noticed was that Black and brown people are out here building stuff regardless and doing whatever it’s going to take, whether they get more diverse investors on the other side of the table or not. But for the people who are out here building something right now and can’t wait for change to happen, what do they do? What’s the playbook for getting something off the ground when you’re cash strapped and you have modest means? This is what I felt I wanted to address with Black and Brown Founders. The residency I did expanded my network and exposed me to so many entrepreneurs who were in the struggle. I wanted to bring information to Black and brown entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Black And Brown Founders

Moguldom: Your website describes you as a creator, inventor, musician, hair magician, techie, foodie, and mommy. As someone who is operating two different entities today, how do you balance it all without something suffering?

Aniyia Williams: I believe that work-life balance is a bit of a myth. The women-having-it-all thing is a fantasy we think about. And I say women specifically because when you bring in the spouse and kids, it is pretty game-changing how your life works. Your attention needs to be divvied up. I don’t profess to have the right formula. This is something I’m constantly trying to work on. I do try to find pieces of time for myself, my daughter who’s 3, and my husband. It’s a series of tradeoffs. Like what is the most important or effective thing you could be spending your time on as it relates to what you’re trying to accomplish?

The other thing I would say, which I’m getting better at, is having a routine. I realized how important our routine is in making anything possible. Having a goal and being able to formulate a plan to get to that goal is great – and that is really how I’ve always thought about things. But now, I think about things a little bit more in the sense of what is the process, or the systems that run all these different aspects of my life. For instance, whether it is making sure I’m doing my job as the executive director of Black and Brown Founders or making sure I get my child picked up on time to take her to ballet and have dinner ready.

What are the alternatives to venture capital that can still have people invest, that can still build companies that make a profit, but also are socially conscious and give a shit about what happens in the world? And also, everybody gets to eat. We get to build more equitable solutions to our very diverse world instead of what one subset of people wants to see.

Aniyia Williams, founder of Black and Brown Founders and co-founder of Zebras Unite.

Moguldom: Can you explain why we should be focused on a zebra and not a unicorn?

Aniyia Williams: After I had done the first Black and Brown Founders event March 2017, I ran into Mara Zepeda, who is also one of the co-founders of Zebras Unite, and we just clicked. We both were speaking at the same conference, met in person and spent the whole night talking. We realized we needed to join forces. What we’re looking to do is provide a counterpoint to the venture narrative I was sharing earlier. We think about the money and return side, but the ethical and socially conscious part of what we are powering with that money needs to be examined.

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The other part of it is there is a really narrow vein of financing for venture capital, and then there’s just this huge gap in terms of what else exists. It’s a little bit of a crude way to put it, but venture capital is kind of like “free money.” There are obligations, a fiduciary duty, to make returns to your investors and all, but generally, no one’s going to come and take your house, unless you’re doing some Theranos or Enron shady dealings. Your investors realize they’re taking a risk. If that money is lost, then they’re accounting for that as a part of the 99 of 100 of their companies to fail. They’re out here cutting checks, millions of dollars for people without a credit check. It’s like free money and we’re out here not getting that money. Anything we build is off of the meager resources we have by comparison. And we’re supposed to make something that’s equally as big and as promising, with way, way, way less. And so, I think there’s an opportunity in terms of how we think about financing businesses to create more instruments, more models and Zebras Unite works on that too. What are the alternatives to venture capital that can still have people invest, that can still build companies that make a profit, but also are socially conscious and give a shit about what happens in the world? And also, everybody gets to eat. We get to build more equitable solutions to our very diverse world instead of what one subset of people wants to see.

Moguldom: Do you think that equality with funding will ever happen? Or are you just looking to close the gap a little bit?

Aniyia Williams: I have to hope. Right? I want to say it depends on how we think about equality. If I’m keeping it 100, there is always going to be good and evil in this world. There’s always going to be a push against progress. I don’t think we’re ever going to live in a utopian place where everyone holds hands and sings Kumbaya and eats rainbows every day. That’s not something I think we should expect. It’s just not the nature of humans. But I do think we can encourage people to do things that make more opportunities that are more equitable for women and people of color. If we can change the incentive structure where now it’s people trying to grab, hoard and take as much money as they can, we can make a difference. Or you end up with people like Jeff Bezos, who have more money than they can ever spend in a lifetime trying to colonize Mars when our own planet is dying. But if we could change incentives to where people got paid more money to do the actual hard jobs or the jobs nobody wants, like a person who picks up trash or picking vegetables out in like 100-degree heat. These people should be getting paid really good money. Teachers should be getting paid really good money. But current incentives are for people who sit in offices with cushy jobs typing on computers. Those are worthy jobs, but are they really as important as the person who unclogs your sewer? We punish people just for being born poor. This is a terrible system. I think when we look at how we move money around, because that is obviously a very big driver, and why we give money to the people who don’t need it, we may see things equal out.

Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for you and your organizations?

Aniyia Williams: For Black and Brown Founders, I would love for our Bootcamp program to continue to grow. I didn’t expect how much I would love it. I have been so energized by getting to work more hands-on with founders on their businesses. I really want to extend it into a large universe with educational initiatives. I want to help people level up. On the Zebras front, I want to see a Zebra fund – whether it is managed by our team or not. I want to see more investing instruments and experiments with revenue-based investments. I want to see us get money into the businesses that aren’t going to be billion-dollar businesses, which is most businesses, by the way, even the ones that are getting venture backing right now. There’s a reason why the venture industry as a whole isn’t actually making returns. It is because they lose a lot of money. They’re losing more money than they are making for the industry as a whole. I think that it’s because it’s a really specific type of model. So, we need more options, and I’d love to see that happen. And I’d like to see Zebras helping to make that happen.